When we don’t feel confident, playing the piano can seem very difficult. It can be hard to trust ourselves, hard to feel the music, and hard to get absorbed in the whole process. Paradoxically, it can seem impossible to actually progress, because it seems that confidence is the result of ability, but we also feel that we need confidence in order to practice well.
We tend to think that the feeling must come before the playing. Why do we think this? My guess is that it is a result of the common experience of trying to play confidently, and failing. However, just because this is a common experience does not mean that it has to be this way.
Is “confidence” in piano playing an attribute of the music, or of the one playing? If we don’t understand the difference, it is very easy to say “I can’t possibly play confidently, because I’m not confident.”
What does it mean to play confidently?
To start with, we would need to have a clear idea of what “playing confidently” means. If we don’t have a concept of this, how can we possibly know what we are trying to do? And, how will we know if we have failed at it?
I’m not sure there is one perfect definition of “confident playing” that would satisfy all purposes, but let’s examine a few characteristics of playing that generally indicate a certain level of confidence.
Confident playing involves clear intention
A confident pianist has a very simple idea of what the performance of a piece is. I like to compare this to reaching out for a glass of water. If we analyze this movement to the greatest degree possible, we can easily become overwhelmed by detail. Which muscles are involved? To what extent do they need to contract and relax? Exactly how much force is required to pick up the glass? What direction do I need to move my arm in, relative to my torso? What angle should I hold my forearm at, to prevent the water from spilling?
This is way too much to think about. It is far more practical to have an intention of simply “picking up the glass”. If I organize my actions around this intention, then over time, I will be able to see how to calibrate each of the individual variables.
You may object “I don’t have a clear intention yet, because I don’t know the piece well enough yet.” It can be difficult to commit to an intention when you are still worried about concrete details which you know are wrong. Nonetheless, this is what you need to do. Choosing a clear intention will serve to focus your mind, and make it easier for you to observe cause and effect relationships between your actions and the results you get.
Confident playing involves lack of correction
Many students will play a wrong note, and then immediately correct it before going on. This is not confident playing.
It’s true that correcting your mistake brings attention to it, and that the audience is less likely to notice a mistake if you simply brush it off (especially if they are unfamiliar with the piece). This is not, however, the main reason I suggest avoiding corrections.
Corrections feed distraction. They make it impossible to focus on big picture. They encourage you to worry about details. They prevent you from entering a state of real connection to what you are doing, because your brain is constantly scanning for potential mistakes to correct.
A common objection to this is “if I don’t correct myself, I will learn the piece wrong.” I am not arguing that you should turn a blind eye to mistakes. However, while you are playing, you cannot correct them. Go back later, figure out what happened, and practice accordingly. But, correcting in the middle of playing is (I’m guessing) not the type of intentional playing you wish to cultivate.
Confident playing involves lack of hesitation
Music has a beat. Don’t interrupt it. You can keep a steady beat even if you aren’t sure of the notes you are playing.
Don’t believe me? Try it. Find a piece that you don’t even know very well, turn on the metronome, and play from beginning to end. Allow yourself to play wrong notes. Work on this until you see clearly that there is no need to hesitate.
Similar to the objection raised in the previous section, I often hear, “if I don’t play carefully, I will make careless mistakes.” Well, you might consider that “playing carefully” is its own kind of mistake. Record your “careful” playing, and listen to it. Can you hear how careful it is? How, exactly, does that come across in the sound? Is that the intention of the composer?
Confident playing involves lack of apology
I think students are trained to look sheepishly at teachers whenever they make mistakes. Worse, they can be trained to really feel as if they have done something wrong, or that they are bad pianists/students/people as a result of it.
This is a distraction. You should be focusing on the music, and on your playing, not on the teacher, and not on your self-image. Notice how it affects your playing. This is always the key.
I’m not sure who would logically argue for the need to apologize after making a mistake. I would be curious to know if anyone defends this.
What will happen if you play confidently when you don’t feel confident?
Hopefully, we now have a clearer understanding of what “confident playing” involves. You may still object to playing confidently, as it may seem that certain negative consequences will arise from this. Perhaps you think:
- It will be a sign of arrogance.
- I will be embarassed if I play confidently and still screw up.
- Others will be angry with me.
- I haven’t yet earned the right to play with confidence, when I still have so many mistakes in my playing.
- I’m only a beginner.
My suggestion is that you don’t try to argue with your mind. Instead, simply notice how all of this is affecting your playing. Give it a try in the practice room. Try it in a lesson. Try it for 5 minutes at a time, and see what happens.
This will help you play better
A final concern I hear frequently is: “I can play confidently once I learn to play well, so I should work towards that first.”
Many people reach high levels of achievement, and do not feel confident. Sometimes, they have learned to perform despite the lack of confidence. Often, confidence actually decreases as skill increases (you gain a better realization of how much you don’t know). I believe you should try to maintain a beginner’s mind. Try to make friends with your incompetence.
It can be challenging to approach things this way, because it is so different from the order society generally teaches us things must progress in. I find, however, that this will help you play better. You will be able to focus more on what you are doing, and less on yourself.